When the Russian Embassy in Lebanon came under rocket-propelled grenade fire yesterday, it sent a stark reminder to Moscow that its brutal offensive in Chechnya is increasingly unpopular in the Mideast.
A note found in the pocket of one gunned-down attacker - a Palestinian sympathizer identified as Ahmed Abou Kharoub - was inscribed with the words: "I martyred myself for Grozny," the Chechen capital now under siege by Russian forces.
Although there are few ethnic Chechens in Lebanon, 15 years of civil war left a gun culture and an array of current and former militia groups, many of them Muslim-based, that have a sympathy with the embattled Chechens. Days ago, some local newspapers reported that Islamists loyal to Chechen fighters were being trained in Lebanon. In addition, militant Muslim groups in Lebanon have been raising money for the guerrillas' resistance.
Though increasingly criticized in the West for its tactics in Chechnya, Russia has encountered opposition in several parts of the Mideast, too. "The Islamic population is getting furious, first because of the Russian offensive, and second because their governments are doing nothing to stop it," says Fakhruddin Daghestani, president of the Chechen-Ingush Friendship Society in Jordan, which hosts the second-largest Chechen community outside Chechnya.
Ethnic Chechens have rallied peacefully across the region, and Arab governments have voiced disapproval. Despite its own close ties to Moscow, Iran, as current head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, has called for greater Russian "appreciation" of Islamic concerns.
In this context, violent attacks against Russian interests abroad have similarities to attacks against American embassies and business in the Mideast and elsewhere. These incidents involving the United States have often been in protest of Washington's pro-Israel and anti-Iraq policies, which are popularly seen in this region as anti-Islamic.
Unidentified assailants fired upon the embassy from a neighboring building on the southern edge of the city center. Mr. Kharoub had fired four grenades and automatic weapons at the embassy, and taken a woman hostage, before his hideout was stormed and he was killed. One policeman also died and six people were wounded in the ensuing hour-long gun battle. Russian diplomats say the embassy was not hit. Some reports spoke of other assailants fleeing.
Such an attack "has not been done before" in protest of the Russian offensive, Mr. Daghestani says.
"In many countries, during prayers in mosques, the imam is spending one-third of his time praying for the Chechen defense and support," he adds. Prayer periods on radio and television, unique to the holy month of Ramadan, which is currently under way, are also addressing the Chechen cause.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society